The Canadian Senate doesn't exactly have terrific branding at the moment. One of its members, Mike Duffy, is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Another, Don Meredith, is implicated in a sordid sex scandal. An exhaustive new audit of senators' expenses has exposed 30 of them who, in auditorspeak, "do not prioritize consideration of the cost to taxpayers" (translation: they make you pay for their fishing trips and for lunches they didn't eat). The Prime Minister, who appointed Mr. Duffy, Mr. Meredith and several other now-disgraced senators, has allowed 20 of the chamber's 105 seats to go empty and is in no mood to fill them. And the Leader of the Opposition, Thomas Mulcair, rising in the polls and seeing his chance, is megaphoning his call for the Senate's abolition.
As they say on Twitter, yikes.
But hang on a minute. The Senate is an essential part of our democracy. Its unelected members provide welcome second thought in the passage of legislation, while rarely failing to defer to the elected Commons. And because members are appointed on a regional basis, it brings a modicum of geographical balance to the doings of Parliament.
Beyond that, though, is the fact that the Senate's existence in its current form is guaranteed in the Constitution. Politicians, the Prime Minister included, have often made loud calls to turn the Senate into an elected body, or bring in term limits, or to abolish it altogether. But attempting to amend our Constitution has in the past proven to be the political equivalent of walking up to a hornet's nest and shoving it down your pants. It never works out well.
So there the Senate sits, unchangeable in practical terms, but desperately in need of some kind of transformation.
Here's a suggestion: Rather than ducking the issue, or politicking on the back of rogue senators, the Prime Minister and the opposition leaders should defend the majority of their co-parliamentarians who do good, honest work. And they should take meaningful steps to rejuvenate the Upper Chamber's brand.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has thrown all the Liberal senators out of his caucus, which means they are (technically) independent. He is promising, if elected, to appoint only independent senators in the future, and to vet them in advance in a transparent, public fashion. That's a far better solution than simply abandoning the institution, as Mr. Harper has done by refusing to name new senators, or calling for its abolition, as Mr. Mulcair continues to do even though he knows it will never happen.
Let's stop pretending the Senate is an antiquated monster in need of radical change. The only thing that needs to change is attitude of those other Parliamentarians who have the power to make the Upper Chamber work as it was meant to.